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NFC East Notebook: Which team has the easiest path to a playoff berth?

Let’s check out the news from around the division this week

NFL: NOV 01 Cowboys at Eagles Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

At least it’s close.

Say what you will about the NFC East, but the race for the division title is nail-bitingly close. These teams might not be playing the best football on a consistent level but as we dive further and further into the second half of the season, it’s impossible to ignore how much each game matters to these four teams.

With wins hard to come by amongst the division (10 total victories through Week 10), strength of schedule is proving increasingly important in determining the potential winner of the NFC East.

Let’s take a look at the remaining opponents for each team:

NFC East Remaining Opponents

Philadelphia Eagles New York Giants Washington Football Team Dallas Cowboys
Philadelphia Eagles New York Giants Washington Football Team Dallas Cowboys
Browns (6-3) Bye Bengals (2-6-1) Vikings (4-5)
Seahawks (7-3) Bengals (2-6-1) Cowboys (2-7) Football Team (2-7)
Packers (7-2) Seahawks (7-3) Steelers (9-0) Ravens (6-3)
Saints (7-2) Cardinals (6-4) 49ers (4-6) Bengals (2-6-1)
Cardinals (6-4) Browns (6-3) Seahawks (7-3) 49ers (4-6)
Cowboys (2-7) Ravens (6-3) Panthers (3-7) Eagles (3-5-1)
Football Team (2-7) Cowboys (2-7) Eagles (3-5-1) Giants (3-7)

The Eagles are the favorite to win the division entering Week 11, but they also have the most difficult schedule remaining on the season at .571. Their next five opponents have records above .500 and no team has more than three losses. Philly’s last two games of the season are against the Cowboys and Football Team. These two matchups are winnable, but if the Eagles can’t find another win in their upcoming five-game stretch, they will enter their final two games of the season with a 3-10-1 record.

A sweep of Dallas and Washington could be enough to hold onto the division lead, but five wins and one tie might not be enough. Not to mention, the Eagles will be playing the Cowboys on the road and they have not won at AT&T Stadium since 2017.

Next, let’s turn to the Giants, who have the second-most challenging remaining schedule at .518. New York built momentum heading into its bye week this week with two-straight wins against the Football Team and Eagles. The Giants head into next week with a 3-7 record and they will take on Joe Burrow’s 2-6-1 Bengals. This is a winnable matchup for New York, but for a team that has not won a non-conference contest yet this season, no game is to be taken for granted. In his career, Daniel Jones has just four wins as a starting quarterback and three of them have come against Washington. The Giants still have yet to prove if they can compete outside of their division.

After the Bengals, New York faces a four-game stretch of teams with records all above .500 and all competing for playoff spots. Even with an improved defense, those four games will prove challenging for New York. Because the Eagles have a tie, the Giants might need to win six games to capture the division. New York’s game against Cincinnati in Week 12 and another matchup against Dallas to close out the season are must-win match-ups if the Giants want to have a shot at the division title.

Washington is next up with a remaining strength of schedule of .453. The Football Team faces tough match-ups against the undefeated Steelers and the Seahawks, but every other remaining game on their schedule is winnable. The Bengals and Cowboys have just two wins apiece and the Panthers and Eagles have just three each.

For Washington, the must-win games are this week’s contest against the Bengals as well as the final two match-ups against NFC East opponents. That would put Washington at five wins. A victory against Matt Rhule’s slumping Panthers could be the difference-maker for the Football Team.

That brings us to Dallas - a team that finds itself in an interesting situation. After the loss of Dak Prescott, it appeared the Cowboys were effectively done for the season. But the combination of a surprisingly strong performance in a Week 10, 24-19, loss to the Steelers combined with a .375 remaining strength of schedule means that Dallas is not out of it yet.

The Cowboys have winnable games against Washington, Cincinnati, San Francisco, Philly and New York still on its schedule. Dallas has to win its Thanksgiving matchup against Washington. If the Cowboys can win that game, they only have to split between the Bengals and 49ers before defeating New York and Philly to close out the season.

For a team that has averaged just 10.3 points per game over the last three weeks, this road to the playoffs still has many obstacles. But the Cowboys have the advantage of having their toughest games behind them heading into the final stretch of the season.

Now, let’s dive into the headlines around the division from this past week.

Dallas Cowboys

Andy Dalton was reactivated this week from the reserve/COVID-19 list after suffering from a concussion in Week 7. Though Garrett Gilbert turned in a strong performance against the Steelers, Dalton will return to the quarterback position against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 11. It’s been a revolving door of quarterbacks for Dallas since Prescott went down, ranging from Dalton to Ben DiNucci to Gilbert.

It should be clear that Mike McCarthy has not outright committed to his starter for Sunday’s game, but Jerry Jones and Stephen Jones have expressed in the past that Dalton would return under center once healthy.

Any hesitation around starting Dalton could be because of how well Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer knows the veteran QB. Zimmer and Dalton spent three years going against one another in practice with the Bengals when Dalton was the QB and Zimmer was the defensive coordinator. When the Bengals visited Minnesota in December 2017, Dalton finished 11 of 22 for 133 passing yards and two interceptions. He was pulled in favor of his backup A.J. McCarron and did not finish the game.

A game three years ago is by no means an indicator for how Sunday’s matchup will turn out. But Dalton and Zimmer do have history that is worth considering.

Washington Football Team

Speaking of quarterbacks, Alex Smith had a career day for Washington against the Detroit Lions last week. The Football Team lost in heartbreaking fashion in the final seconds, but Smith was remarkable in his return as a starter. In his first start under center since November 2018, Smith was 38 of 55 for 390 yards, marking his second straight 300-plus yard game. With Kyle Allen now officially on IR nursing a dislocated ankle, we can expect to see more of Smith in the coming weeks.

The Football Team however, was not remarkable in Sunday’s loss as turnovers and missed opportunities defined the game. Rookie Chase Young was called for rushing the passer in the game’s final minute - a penalty that allowed the Lions to advance to field goal range. Smith had led the team down the field in an efficient two-minute drill, but it was not enough. Matthew Prater kicked a 59-yard field goal to give Detroit the win.

Blaming Young for Sunday’s loss is the easy road to take though because many were at fault and many weaknesses were exploited.

“It’s never usually one thing,” Smith said of the loss. “It’s a 100 little things that add up. We can all be just a little bit better in a ton of different areas and oftentimes, that’s what turns the tide.”

In this way, Detroit did not so much win the game as Washington lost it when it surrendered a first-half turnover and failed to convert two potential first-half scores due a missed FG and dropped touchdown pass.

“I thought we played well enough to win,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “It’s just unfortunate that it didn’t work out that way. We left nine points out on the field and we gave them three.

“I tell the guys, you can’t play against two teams on Sunday.”

Philadelphia Eagles

Philly continues to demonstrate a strange pattern of releasing players only to sign them again.

Earlier this week, it was reported that the Eagles are brining back free agent running back Jordan Howard from the Miami Dolphins. Howard had a successful season with the Eagles in 2019, recording 119 rushing attempts for 525 yards and five touchdowns. This season however, Howard has 28 carries for 33 yards and four touchdowns. The Dolphins signed Howard to a two-year deal with $4.5 million guaranteed, but they clearly care more about freeing up a roster spot than keeping the unproductive Howard around.

Howard joins an ever-growing list amongst the Eagles organization of bringing former players back to the organization.

  • WR DeSean Jackson
  • DE Vinny Curry
  • TE Richard Rodgers
  • OT Brett Toth
  • DE Shareef Miller
  • DT TY McGill
  • DT Treyvon Hester
  • RB Jordan Howard

Especially for a team that has had success with unfamiliar players like wide receiver Travis Fulgham and running back Boston Scott, it’s strange that the Eagles continue to go backwards.